Wi-Fi takes inventory management to new heights

There’s something in the air these days at distribution centers everywhere. From the farmer’s field to the warehouse floor, wireless technologies are transforming the way businesses manage inventory. Clipboards and manual data entry are going the way of the adding machine.

Antiquated, overburdened inventory systems are gradually disappearing in favor of sophisticated networks that offer voice and data across Wi-Fi and rely on multiple supporting technologies including RFID, Bluetooth, and sensors.

Although many warehouses have used proprietary wireless solutions for as long as a decade to scan inventory, the data has typically been batched and collected at the end of the day by synchronizing a handheld with the server. By contrast, Wi-Fi deployments deliver data directly from the floor to the database in real-time.

“A wireless LAN gives companies a couple of hours of sharper visibility,” says Adam Zawel, an analyst at The Yankee Group. “You don’t have to wait to sync with the barcode scanner to get the data.” Those extra hours add up to hard ROI, he said.

So it’s no surprise that many companies with household names are investing millions to put Wi-Fi to work.

Delivering Efficiencies

United Parcel Service Inc. decided it was time to update its technology when the curly cords attached to the barcode readers worn by warehouse loaders kept snagging on packages. The constant repairs generated significant maintenance costs.

UPS is now in the midst of a much larger US$121 million, multiyear Wi-Fi upgrade across 1,700 sites, which company officials expect will reduce repair costs by 30 per cent and save 35 per cent in spare equipment costs.

UPS has a fairly modest technology goal for its refresh of old, proprietary 900Mhz devices. The-data collection process remains the same: The loaders will still scan packages as they load them onto outbound tractor trailers in order to track packages to their destination. But the equipment has changed. Now a Bluetooth-enabled ring scanner eliminates the curly cord and communicates wirelessly to a Motorola Inc. device worn on the handler’s belt equipped with both Bluetooth and a Symbol Technologies Inc. radio chip for IEEE 802.11b.

A deceptively simple project, it’s actually a huge undertaking, which after two years is only 25 per cent complete.

“There are 1,700 locations where you have to do site surveys for each facility, order equipment, install, and test it — not just for the APs but for the client devices as well,” said Fred Hoit, UPS’ Wireless LAN Deployment project manager.

UPS plans to consolidate many of its other scanning systems onto one common hardware and software platform for reporting and monitoring — and it plans to manage all of it centrally. By doing so, the company expects to reduce support costs and downtime, while giving distribution-center managers real-time access to packages’ locations.

Meanwhile, loaders are pleased because they no longer have to wear a 10-ounce device on their arm.

But two years on the project have brought some hard lessons. “Bluetooth has caused some heartburn,” Hoit said. Symbol was the only vendor that could solve the interference problems of Bluetooth and IEEE 802.11b co-existing in the same device, so UPS is now locked into one vendor, Hoit says.

Another issue involves automating the download of WEP keys to APs and mobile units, and making sure they sync whenever changes are made.

“When you push the WEP out, you get no acknowledgement that you have received it successfully,” Hoit explains.

When the project is complete, there will be 125,000 clients to manage. And now that the Wi-Fi infrastructure is installed, it needs intrusion detection software to monitor the airwaves.

“When you install one infrastructure you have to look at another infrastructure to protect it,” Hoit notes. Nevertheless, the project is on schedule and within budget. UPS is satisfied enough that it is now looking to light conference rooms in office complexes. “Once you can deploy it and secure it, you keep coming up with more and more ways to use it,” Hoit says.

Casting off the Clipboard

Dunkin Donuts Inc. warehouse pickers may look like they’re talking to themselves but they’re actually controlling inventory by voice commands. Weary of a clipboard and pencil system for tracking inventory from warehouse to store, company officials are turning to Wi-Fi.

“We have everything from flour and flatware to the kitchen sink on our shelves,” said Boris Shubin, IT manager at Dunkin Donuts Mid-Atlantic Distribution Cooperative Program.

The new Pick to Voice system uses Voxware software for voice recognition. The system sends automated voice instructions to pickers telling them what items and how many to pick. The picker then repeats and confirms the instructions with a voice response.

A combination of a Symbol Technologies client worn by the picker, Airespace access points, and access point controllers complete the loop.

Dunkin Donuts is also deploying IDS software that runs on its IBM Corp. AS/400s to integrate Voxware Inc. with ERP, SCM, and CRM applications.

Shubin is approaching the transition cautiously. He is concerned about Microsoft and security issues.

Voxware is moving its application software from Wind River Systems Inc.’s VX Works OS to Microsoft Win CE. Earlier this summer, the first virus to attack the Microsoft Windows CE-embedded OS struck.

“A wireless device that is susceptible to infection is the worst possible security situation out of all conceivable scenarios,” Shubin says.

Shubin also worries because wireless devices don’t control the kind of radio signal they receive. “It has to comply with U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations for radio, so it has to receive signals, and they could be somebody else’s,” he said.

Safety had been a concern, as pickers drove across the warehouse while reading from a paper-based system, Shubin notes.

Overall, he is pleased with the benefits of the Wi-Fi Pick-to-Voice system. It has increased the number of pieces picked from an average of 20 per hour per picker to 60 per hour. And as incredible as it sounds, it was the pickers who asked to increase their piece counts, thanks to an incentive program.

Wi-Fi Stakes Its Claim on the Farm

Wi-Fi is also easing the work processes out on the farm, or what Columbia Rural Electric Association CEO Tom Husted calls “agricultural factories.”

He is spearheading a US$1 million project to light 3,700 square miles of terrain in rural Washington. The landscape precluded a typical fiber optics or cable solution. So Husted turned to Vivato Inc., a Wi-Fi solution provider with a unique technology.

Based on Vivato’s “smart antenna” technology, Columbia REA’s access points — or base stations as Vivato calls them — have a range between two square miles to three square miles. Deploying six US$10,000 base stations and several US$2,000 boosters (repeaters), Columbia REA will eventually be able to cover the entire terrain. About 1,700 square miles are already lit in less than a year.

The network also uses a device that converts sensor information into TCP/IP protocol. It’s made by Resource Associates International; each is about the size of a deck of cards and costs about US$200. The configuration allows farmers to access existing sensors — which monitor moisture for vineyards, irrigation pivots, atmosphere rooms in packing facilities, and sunlight in an orchard — by sending their data via Wi-Fi, where they had previously had to send workers out to take manual readings.

“The ROI is in properly utilizing manpower,” Husted explains. “By employing this [Wi-Fi] technology in agriculture, people can get data remotely on computers as opposed to driving around over a vast amount of acreages. The savings is all in the manpower.”

Bright Future in Store

The underpinnings of countless industries involve moving a box from point A to point B in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Wi-Fi is helping to accomplish that goal by giving managers real-time access to the data they must understand in order to change business processes to meet larger corporate objectives.

According to Shiv Bakshi, director of mobile and Wi-Fi infrastructure at IDC, an estimated one-third of all companies that use a distribution system are turning to Wi-Fi — IEEE 802.11x — and related technologies to reduce labor costs, increase efficiency, and consolidate applications.

According to The Yankee Group, of those companies planning to deploy WLANs next year, 41 per cent plan to use it for tracking inventory.

“Structurally a distribution center is an ideal place to deploy Wi-Fi,” Bakshi says. “There are no walls.”

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